Photograph by Thomas Nicolon
Photograph by Thomas Nicolon

The deadly thing about snakes

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

After humans and mosquitoes, snakes kill more people on Earth than any other animal.

More than 100,000 people die from venomous snakebites every year. The snakebite crisis is so bad that the World Health Organization has put it on its roster of deadly neglected tropical diseases—along with rabies, dengue, and leprosy.

But why “neglected?” Think about this: The vast majority of deaths from snake bites occur in poor, rural areas of developing countries. In other words, the victims are people who can’t easily afford to buy medicine. And because there’s no market for antivenom medicines, there’s little funding dedicated toward research of effective ones. (Pictured above, a rhinoceros viper, native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

In sub-Saharan Africa, where the problem is more acute than almost anywhere, Guinean snakebite scientist Baldé Mamadou Cellou sums up his frustration to Nat Geo writer and photographer Thomas Nicolon: “We see millions being spent to rig even local elections, while in the meantime African scientists lack money to do lifesaving research.” (Below left, the scientist amid a snake collection; at right, his swollen hand after being bitten by a puff adder).

One of the best anti-venoms he’d found was discontinued in 2014 because it wasn’t profitable. But even when it was available, few victims could afford it—and even that was contingent on: a) the health clinic having it on hand, b) the victim making it to the clinic before it was too late; and c) the health care provider knowing how to administer it properly.

It’s no wonder the crisis is so bad.

There is some hope, in the form of a promising new antivenom that can treat the bites of at least 18 African snake species, Nicolon reports in National Geographic’s December issue. But it’s going to take a lot more than just one new drug. Snakebites are “finally recognized as an undeniable public health issue,” Nicolon told me in an email. “Many foundations, which never considered funding snakebite research, are now showing more interest. Most importantly, African experts are getting more credit for their work, and Western researchers now know that working hand in hand with them will make research and treatment move faster.”

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Today in a minute

Protecting the white giraffe: After poachers killed its family, an extreme rare white giraffe has been outfitted with a tracker for his protection, NBC News reports. The giraffe, from the the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy in southeast Kenya, is extremely vulnerable to poachers because of the loss of pigmentation in its skin. After the killings, Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly questioned whether the popularity of the three giraffes on social media may have helped identify them for poachers. “Rarity and exclusivity are among the driving factors of the illegal wildlife trade, so unusual animals are more likely to be targeted by poachers,” Daly wrote.

Robot wolves: They’re big. They’re scary. And a Japanese town has deployed three giant robot wolves to deter bear attacks. The robowolves, however, are ghosts in a way. The real wolves in central and northern Japan were driven to extinction by hunting and resource competition, The Verge reports. And bear attacks? They’re down, but probably due to a dearth of acorns, a bear magnet.

A warning: A few readers have asked me to warn them if a particularly violent image is coming. There is one next, but it is placed in context, and reflects the reality of the Serengeti.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Defiant and challenging: That’s how photographer Lara Jackson describes the look of this lioness defending her kill in the Serengeti National Park. Jackson made this image last summer when the wildebeest migration was at its peak. “The sheer volume of animals in the area means that the predators can take a back seat and snatch an easy meal,” said Jackson, who captured this image just after the young lioness had pounced on a fully grown wildebeest. “Unfortunately, her inexperience meant that the kill was not completely clean, and the poor wildebeest was still alive when she started eating. As we re-angled the vehicle, she put her paw possessively over the wildebeest and gave us this intense, challenging stare. I felt instantly small—they are such formidable predators—but drawn to the redness of the blood covering her face and muzzle. I thought that it perfectly illustrated the beauty and brutality of nature.”

Related: How the lioness really runs the pride

The big takeaway

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Valuable, and endangered: At least five candidates for a COVID-19 vaccine rely upon a special oil in the liver of a scalloped hammerhead shark that helps it survive the crushing pressures of the deep. The fatty substance provides vital buoyancy for this critically endangered species and others but also saves human lives as a boosting agent in vaccines. Conservationists fear that increased vaccine demand for the substance, called squalene, could further imperil sharks. Roughly three million or so sharks are hunted and traded for their squalene. It takes the livers of between 2,500 and 3,000 sharks to extract about a ton of squalene, Justin Meneguzzi writes. Note: Neither Pfizer or Moderna’s COVID vaccines, which have scored successes in testing, require squalene. (Pictured above, scalloped hammerheads swimming off the Galápagos Islands.)

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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That’s some lizard: And so invasive, too! This dog-sized lizard, docile and intelligent, first reached the U.S. as a pet from its native South America. The Argentine black-and-white tegu, which can grow up to four feet long, is taking over parts of the Everglades, devouring native animals and eggs of ground-laying birds. It is eating its way through the southeast U.S. at a startling pace, being spotted in Georgia and South Carolina. If many more of the animals are released, “there is the potential for a very large population in the wild,” Amy Yachel Adams, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, tells Nat Geo.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this newsletter. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at . And thanks for reading.